the unlikeliest by Mark Ratto

the unlikeliest, Mark Ratto, Zach Dean, Issue No. 7, Volume II, re.write magazine, testimony, faith, love
Behind a building, nestled amid Alabama’s back woods, a stream scurried towards the forest. Four people—two teenagers and two twenty-somethings— tip-toed around roots and stomped through bunches of fallen branches in an effort to follow the stream into the deep Alabama brush. The group searched for nothing as they walked. Nothing tangible, at least. A stroll through the woods that lay outside of the rehab center remained the only focus. The two teenagers slept, ate, cleaned, and lived within the comfortable confines of The Bridge in Gadsden, Alabama. The Bridge is a government- funded facility that houses three programs geared to young men in order to help rehabilitate them from an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The two teenagers on the walk were court ordered to spend 90 days there. Most of the boys in the center aged from 12-18 years old. And they spent each day trying to calculate the possibility of actually staying off of drugs or alcohol. The two twenty-somethings walking with the two teenagers were there to help with the rehabilitation process. The center’s management granted the group an outdoor excursion to allow the kids some fresh air. But Zach Dean, one of the adults escorting the teenagers, knew more was at stake. He had been observing Steve* for the past few days. He noticed the 15- year-old as a quiet boy, with an intensely guarded personality. Steve had yet to show any emotion, good or bad, up or down. Zach and his group of 12 Bi- ble college students from Bethel Church in Redding, California arrived at the start of the week, and Steve barely spoke throughout that time. But Zach knew this short walk with Steve had voluminous importance. “How do you feel, Steve?” Zach casually asked, ten minutes into the walk. Steve’s eyes lifted up at Zach. The kid from an abusive home and a gang- riddled neighborhood peered over at the slim, pale, blue-eyed man. The two 



couldn’t have had less in common. Zach knew it. But he didn’t care. Because this moment wasn’t about him. It was about Steve. And Zach had one thing running through his head before, after, and while he asked Steve questions. Jesus, open up this kid’s heart to how much You love him. *** When Zach shares his story, he will tell the listener everything that was, everything that might have been, and all of the emotions that swarmed in be- tween. Zach will look away as he ponders phrases but always keeps eye con- tact while speaking. He thrives on personal connection and when expressing himself, his poignant statements insist that the listener is important. He loves people. Like, intensely loves people. The backstory to his being bent on loving those around him can be traced back to some formative elementary school years. From the ages of seven to nine years old, Zach lived in Dallas, Texas as his parents attended Christ for the Nations Institute, a vibrant Bible college in the area. “They had an amazing kids department,” Zach remembers. “They took it a step further, and they knew that the spirit in a child is just as big and impor- tant as an adult’s.” The Sunday School kept in line with the typical approach of animated lessons and goofy activities to keep the kids engaged. But instead of only filtering through the classic stories like the burning bush and Jonah’s run-in with a whale, the classes also talked about what the prophets endured in the Old Testament. How and why Jesus came. And even how He left. And the teachers often invited the kids to participate in times of prayer that looked


like stuff the grownups did in the next room over. On one of those Sundays, as the kids sat cross-legged on the rug, a teacher in the front of the classroom asked the kids a rather uncommon question for that type of setting. “I remember one Sunday service and they asked if anyone wanted to re- ceive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and a prayer language,” Zach recalls. “And I just remember being one of the first kids to run up to the altar and receive a prayer language. And they had some of the Bible school students stand there and lay hands on us and pray for us. And I remember it as if my jaw unhinged and my mouth started moving. And I remember this strange sound kind of come out.” That moment not only unhinged his jaw, but his perspective on the world. Zach felt the weightiness of God. And at an age when the color of a new bike or the type of video game console nags at a child’s daily thoughts, Zach had been introduced to something quite substantial: the love of Jesus. And shortly after that happened, Zach expressed an epiphany that sometimes takes people a lifetime to figure out. “I don’t remember if I said it, but I remember just wanting to love people, to serve people,” Zach says. “I wanted to do what [God] wanted me to do and love people well. I believe that was around seven or eight years old.” *** The scent of Alabama trees permeated the air as Steve looked over at Zach, still pondering the question about how he felt. Even though they grew up experiencing different things, lived in different places, and had nothing in
common, Steve trusted Zach. Steve had finally broken his silence, walked up to Zach, and simply started to share about his life. Originally from Hawaii, the teenager’s family had to move to his mother’s hometown in Alabama because his dad had lost his job as a car salesman. Things slid out of control as the difficult transition back to Alabama pushed Steve’s dad into a depre- ssion-fueled alcoholism that led to several abusive confrontations. Sadly, Steve stood at the wrong end of those confrontations. And, in turn, Steve found acceptance amongst the local drug dealers and drug users, eventually landing him in the 90-day youth rehab center. Zach will never know what that is like. Having an abusive, drunk, angry father never happened in his life. Zach never used drugs. And he rarely ever interacted with gang members, if ever. Yet, Zach has a trick when it comes to kids like Steve. He lets the Holy Spirit direct things. Zach simply has to verbalize what God wants to be said. And from there, even during a short-term visit to the rehab center, Zach wit- nesses a change in their perspectives on life. Steve finally answered Zach’s question about how he felt. “I’m cool, why?” Steve responded. “Well, I was wondering if you wanted to have an encounter,” Zach said. “What’s that?” Steve asked. “It’s sort of like having a trip,” Zach said, referring to a term used by drug users to describe what happens after getting high. Zach used this term as a way of giving the teenagers something they could relate to. Steve’s face contorted into confusion. He knew Zach didn’t have drugs on him. And he knew the others didn’t either. But before he could ask how they would go on this “trip”, the other teenager interrupted. 



“Just do it man. It’s cool. I went on one yesterday,” the other kid said. And then he described what happened the day before with another person from Zach’s group. “It was crazy. I closed my eyes and all of a sudden, I was in this huge room. And I saw all of these pictures of me playing basketball on the wall,” the kid said to Steve, who listened intently. “And when I opened my eyes and told the guys what I saw, they said that God wanted to show me that He was at all of my games. And even though my real dad wasn’t, He was. And He loved me so much that He put those pictures in this room that only I had the key to. And anytime things got tough, I could go back to this room. Cool, right?” Steve nodded in agreement. His face relaxed into a that-does-sound-cool kind of look, and Zach just smiled. He had seen it many times before. When given the opportunity, the kids at the center see God in a different, unique, and satisfying way. A moment happens when they realize God has always been there. And even after they leave the 90-day program, that same God will still be right there. *** Zach’s powerful moments with God are countless. Even at the fairly young age of 26, Zach has seen and done a lot. But monumental moments are diff- erent from powerful moments. And aside from the time he walked up to the altar as a seven-year-old, Zach has had three other monumental moments with God. All of which have brought Zach back to, or closer to, the simple fact that no matter what, he has been made to love.


Moment 1: Biking through Western Europe Just five months after graduating from Western Washington University, Zach and his best friend schemed up a three-month bike tour to find adven- ture and eat some incredible food as they rode from Portugal, up through France, and back down through Italy. And while Zach’s legs pedaled incess- antly, his mouth worked even harder. For most of the riding days, he and his friend were unable to ride next to each other because of the busy roads. That left Zach with ample alone time. “I didn’t go [to Europe] to encounter the Lord. I didn’t go to have this spi- ritual awakening. I went to see Europe and see the castles and eat the food,” Zach says. “And I would be by myself on the bike for six or seven hours, and you can only be quiet for so long. You are either going to talk to yourself or talk to the Lord.” During the third week into the trip, as his bike whirred along a road split- ting the land between two Spanish farms, Zach had a monumental moment with God. He reached down to change the song on his iPod and for the first time on his trip, he had zero desire to listen to his usual songs. So he put on some music about God. The first song that came on under the “worship music” playlist was an updated version of the old hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” The song sprang from his headphones, and Zach let the words sink into his thoughts. The same weightiness that Zach felt as a kid dispersed throughout his body before overtaking him. Zach instantly knew it was God. He recognized the feeling. He stopped pedaling and simply began to weep. The scene would have been confusing to any passer-by. Zach slowly rolled to a stop as his friend unknowingly ped- aled away from his crying friend. 



But the moment was very clear to Zach. God drew Zach closer in and showed Himself to be a kind, gentle, gracious God. Moment 2: A Bench in Korea A few months after his bike trip ended, Zach went into job-finding mode and came to the conclusion that teaching English abroad for a year would be a good idea. Seoul, South Korea ended up being the final destination. Was he excited? A little. Did he like the place the moment he landed? Not really. The food, the distance from home, and the little-to-no teaching experience all caused him to question why he was even there. He contemplated a quick flight home several times within the first few days. On the fifth day, he walked over to the window of his fourth floor room. Peering out to the street, Zach once again toyed with the idea of calling his parents and having them book a flight home. He didn’t want to give up, but he didn’t want to stay either. As this internal debate bounced around his head, he saw a guy on the street below, reading on a bench. Zach couldn't help but feel drawn to the guy. Something inside of him told him to go and chat with him. “It was one of the few times that I heard the Holy Spirit so clearly, and I remember He said, ‘I want you to go down there and talk to this person,’” Zach says. “And I remember thinking, that is crazy, I don’t know that person, I don’t want to interrupt him. And I heard Him say, ‘I want you to go down there.’” Zach proceeded to head down and sit next to the guy. Neither said anything at first. Zach just sat and waited for the guy to finish his page. The guy was a fellow expat with light brown hair, a goatee, soft blue eyes, and he carried himself in an extremely peaceful and relaxed manner.
“Hi, I’m Brady,” the guy mentioned. Zach introduced himself, and without knowing why or how, Zach just started gushing out his feelings. He had never done that to a stranger before, but he did it on that bench. Brady never flin- ched. He just listened. “So when I saw him, I felt like it was a divine appointment,” Brady recalls. “I knew I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to pray for him and bless him. I could tell that he was someone that loved people. And that he enjoyed being around people. I told him about New Philadelphia and some other churches.” At the end of the conversation, Zach knew he was in the right place. He knew God had led him to Korea for that year. The Sunday after he met Brady on the bench, Zach attended New Philadelphia Church. “I remember walking through the door and instantly feeling at home,” Zach explains. “It was a safe place. A place of peace and real family.” Zach rode out his year in Korea in the only fashion he knew how to: by loving people. And it all started with the moment he met Brady on the bench. Moment 3: Broken Down in California Immediately following his time in Korea, Zach landed in the quaint Northern California city of Redding. The city hosts one of the most influen- tial Bible colleges in America, Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministries (BSSM), and Zach got in. This was his opportunity to really dive into all things God. Simply put, BSSM is a very unique place. People come from every walk, corner, and spectrum of life to attend. The school has grown exponentially since its birth in 1998 and continues to grow. But the size is not the most prevalent aspect of the school. It is the joy and the overwhelming freedom to be themselves that every student seems to embody.


Zach loved that aspect. He loved feeling free to be himself, and watch others partake in that, too. This environment sparked a perfect atmosphere for God to squeeze out every last bit of selfishness Zach had, including being vulnerable during difficult times. The school’s tuition was not particularly expensive, but it certainly was not cheap. And Zach needed to eat, rent his apartment, and live. So, money hampered his already busy school schedule. Zach ended up applying for a part-time job at a sporting goods store. The pay was not substantial but enough to get by. The night before Zach was going to start his new job, he ventured out to see some friends at a Christmas party. A potential paycheck on the horizon was very welcomed news, and he wanted to share in that joy with others. As Zach walked out to his 1992 green Subaru four-door and got in, he put the key into the ignition, turned the key, heard a clickety-clack and then, nothing. After repeating the process, he finally faced the fact that his car had broken down. Considering it was too late in the evening, he decided to figure out the problem in the morning. Nothing had changed in the morning, however, and he had to forfeit going into work. “It was really awkward to call into [my] boss and tell him I couldn’t start my car,” Zach says. “So it started this whole process of, I have these needs and I don’t know how to get them met. I didn’t know how to get my needs met or how to ask for help to get them met.” This turn of events was confusing for Zach. He knew he needed the money. He knew God wanted to take care of him. And he knew his time at school was only getting better. So why did he have to go through such an embarras- sing moment? He began moping at school. He missed a few sessions because


he didn’t want to ask for rides. And people started to notice. An intern pas- tor with the program spoke up and asked him what was wrong. “So I am explaining this to my [intern pastor] and she just asks me this really, really simple question: ‘Are you worth other people’s time?’ And I sat there, and I didn’t really know what to tell her,” Zach says. “I knew the cor- rect response, but my heart struggled with whether I really believed I was worth someone's time, help, energy, resources, etc. I didn't want to feel like a burden and I never thought that maybe people actually enjoyed helping me.” This was the next step in Zach’s journey to loving all the people he could. He needed to allow people to love him. Without letting people in when it was the most important, Zach would not be able to connect with others all the way. The broken down car—albeit embarrassing—provided God an opport- unity to reveal to Zach the walls that he still had up. *** Steve looked at the other kid, and then turned to Zach. The sound of the stream running next to them, the rustling of a light wind, and the shining sun through the trees presented a perfect scene for a life-changing moment. Zach saw it immediately and boldly told Steve to repeat after him. “So I just said, ‘Repeat after me,’ and he repeated after me. ‘Jesus, where is my secret place? Show me my secret place.’” Steve closed his eyes, stood there for a few brief moments, and then opened them again. It took just a minute, but that was all he needed. Just after closing his eyes, different images popped into his head. And when he opened his eyes and described what happened, Zach didn’t need to interpret what the 



images were. Steve told the group that God had showed him what it meant to have a father. And what it meant to have Jesus with him, by his side, at all times. *** Zach has been to Alabama three times now. He actually acted as the co- leader of the most recent trip. Not one kid in the rehab center lived a life like Zach. He didn’t look like any of them. He didn’t dress like any of them. And his day-to-day as a 15- year-old unravelled in much different terms than these court-ordered rehab attendees. And yet, they trusted him. The kids knew that what they said to Zach would be kept safe. And his response would never be layered in conde- mnation or judgment. Leslie, Zach’s current mentor and pastor at BSSM, says it best: “Zach can relate to multiple cultures, age groups, and people. His character is what really sets him apart because people know they can trust him. He does it with grace, love, and integrity. But he knows how to have fun and not be too ser- ious.” On every level, Zach Dean has been made ready to receive people’s emotio- nal baggage. Zach has a large capacity to love. But he never knew that in order to increase that capacity, he had to let others love him, including God. And now, Zach can love the unlikeliest of people and relate in the unlikeliest of situations. *The name of the teenager has been changed for this article.